A University of Minnesota flag waves outside the mansion of President Joan Gabel. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

UPDATE: In a court hearing in Boston on Tuesday, July 14, the Trump administration agreed to withdraw its proposed rule on international students and in-person instruction. Read the updated story here.

During spring semester, the coronavirus pandemic sent students off college campuses to finish their classwork online. But this fall, a proposed new rule from the Trump administration could force international students back to Minnesota’s campuses-—or drive them out of the United States entirely. 

On July 6, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, announced a new proposed rule to require international students to attend in-person classes this fall. The potential mandate comes as colleges and universities scrupulously develop plans to balance educational priorities and public health needs. 

The new directive caused deportation fears, and uncertainty about educational prospects for international students across the country. To the extent the order came without any notice and almost immediately provoked lawsuits, it also caused massive confusion. On July 9, the University of Minnesota joined a brief in support of a lawsuit filed by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security seeking to overturn the proposed rule. On Monday, Minnesota joined 16 states and the District of Columbia in a separate lawsuit against DHS and ICE, seeking an injunction to prevent the rule from going into effect. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which represents 4,300 international students across 37 two- and four-year colleges, filed a declaration in support of that lawsuit.

Here’s what the order means for international students in Minnesota.

What does the order change?

Before the pandemic, international students in the United States had limits to the coursework they could take online. Students on the common F-1 visas for academic programs could take a maximum of one class online. Students with M-1 visas for vocational programs could not take any classes online.

As the coronavirus became a pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security made a temporary exception for students at colleges and universities that went online for spring and summer classes. 

But in early July, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a change to those pandemic exceptions. ICE warned that international students whose universities have switched to fully online classes would not be able to remain in the United States and could face deportation.  

Students whose universities adopt a hybrid model of in-person and online classes must take at least one in-person class. The new rule will provide “massive flexibility” for schools to “do anything short of 100 percent online classes,” Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told CNN, though the temporary regulation has not yet been finalized.

International students at schools resuming full in-person classes will be bound by the previous limit of a maximum of one online class. Students in English training or vocational programs will not be permitted to take any online classes.

Who are Minnesota’s international students?

According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, about 10,900 international or foreign-born students enroll each year in the state’s colleges and universities. Approximately 6,000 international students attend the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, as either undergrad and graduate students, about 12 percent of the university’s student body. 

St. Cloud State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato are each home to more than 1,000 international students. Altogether, 4,300 international students attend 37 two- and four-year Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Throughout the country, there are more than 1 million international students. More than half come from Asia, with the largest numbers of students coming from China and India.

What does this mean for Minnesota colleges and universities?

Right now, the University of Minnesota plans to reopen with a hybrid model of in-person and online classes. Many other four-year colleges and universities throughout the state have tentative plans to reopen partly or at close to full capacity. But these plans could change throughout the semester if health conditions get worse or the campus experiences an outbreak. Colleges and universities are required to notify the federal government within 10 days if they switch to all-online courses during the semester or if any of their international students do.

International students at the University for Minnesota are circulating a petition calling on the school to create more in-person class options, especially for upper-division major-required courses, calling current offerings “limited.” 

Around the country, some schools and professors have announced that they will offer in-person classes or independent studies just for international students. This instruction would theoretically allow students to maintain their status.

The day after ICE announced its new rule, University of Minnesota president Joan Gabel said in a note to students and faculty that the university was reviewing its hybrid plan to ensure it could accommodate in-person classes where necessary to comply with the directive from ICE. “We stand with our international students,” Gabel wrote.

Are students with other visas impacted?

This rule change affects students with F-1 and M-1 visas. But in recent months, presidential proclamations have also curtailed other types of visas. On May 29, the White House issued a proclamation limiting F-1 and J-1 visas for certain graduate students and scholars from China, claiming a need to protect intellectual property developed in academia. Then on June 22, President Trump suspended entry into the United States for certain types of visas, including H-1B, H-2B, L-1, and certain J-1 visitors, citing “risk to the U.S. labor market.”

As long as the students already hold these visas, the new restrictions shouldn’t affect students currently in the United States or temporarily abroad. But because of pandemic-related office closures throughout the world, some students and their family members may not have been able to obtain visas in a timely manner.

I don’t have one of those visas, but I’m a student and I’m not a U.S. citizen. Does this directive affect me?

The new restrictions are for “nonimmigrant” international students. Students who have immigrated to the United States and hold other types of visas or immigration statuses will not be affected.

Why is this happening now?

The announcement comes the same week the Trump administration begins a push to pressure schools and universities to reopen in the fall. Acting DHS secretary Ken Cuccinelli told Brianna Keilar on CNN, “This is now setting the rules for one semester, which we’ll finalize later this month that will, again, encourage schools to reopen.” 

According to ICE, the new rule is designed to “maximize flexibility for students to continue their studies, while minimizing the risk of transmission of COVID-19 by not admitting students into the country who do not need to be present to attend classes in-person.”

Is this rule definitely going into effect?

The rule is still being finalized. It’s also already being challenged in court. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which plan to hold most or all of their fall classes online, sued DHS and ICE in federal court on July 8. The complaint asks the court for a temporary restraining order preventing implementation of the policy, and a declaration that the policy is unlawful. 

“By all appearances, ICE’s decision reflects an effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen in-person classes, which would require housing students in densely packed residential halls, notwithstanding the universities’ judgment that it is neither safe nor educationally advisable to do so,” the complaint reads. “The effect—and perhaps even the goal—is to create as much chaos for universities and international students as possible.”

The following day, the University of Minnesota announced it had joined universities around the country in filing a legal brief in support of Harvard and MIT’s lawsuit.

“We cannot stand by in good conscience as international students are forced out of the country through no fault of their own,” Gabel said in a statement. “We stand with our international students, and international students across the country, in asking that the ICE directive be overturned immediately.”

On Monday, July 13, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison joined 16 states and the District of Columbia seeking an injunction in a separate lawsuit against ICE and DHS.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities submitted a declaration in support of the states’ lawsuit from senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs Ron Anderson. “Our international students have expressed fear and confusion because of the Rule,” Anderson said in his declaration, adding that he was concerned some international students might dis-enroll.

The 37 colleges and universities in the MnSCU system are reviewing their plans to make sure they will have sufficient in-person offerings for international students, Anderson’s declaration said.

While this workaround could help international students keep their visas, the attorneys general expressed concerns that the scramble to create enough in-person classes for international students could compromise public health.

“This reversal leaves colleges and universities with an agonizing dilemma,” wrote the attorneys general in their complaint. That is, create enough in-person classes in multiple departments, despite the health risks, or to lose their international students. “Either choice will inflict harm.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...